Diary of a disaster

I want to tell you about a disaster. It was pheasant season, and the call had come from my butcher. He had a beautiful brace of birds and he promised to keep them hanging in his cool-room until they were ripe, pluck them, gut them, and present them to me to turn into something special for special friends.

The time came, the birds were presented, and the man explained what a damned nuisance the pheasants had been to pluck. ‘Their skin is so delicate,’ he said. ‘You have to be so careful with them.’ Of course we don’t ever think of such things. This is the society in which everything is done for us. I often hanker for the past, but I must say that pheasant-plucking is not a part of that hankering. Streets without cars, trains that run regularly and reliably, bakers on every corner, yes — but plucking pheasants, no.

You think I’m joking. Well I’m not. Let me quote you a few lines on plucking from one of my favourite books, The Woman’s Mirror recipe book, publication date about 1930, target audience: housewives of Australia.

‘Selection, preparation, and cooking of poultry. Seasonable hints by Mirror cooks. When a fowl is to be killed, starve it for 12 hours. The crop will then be empty and cleansing made easier. Dislocate the neck and pluck the bird while still warm. Remove the biggest feathers first, holding the bird by the legs, head down. If the fowl is cold, plunge it into hot water before plucking, then pluck quickly.’

See, you didn’t believe me. That book is the equivalent of today’s ‘Women’s Whatever Cook Book’. Haven’t we got it easy these days?

Anyway, I tied up the breasts with whole sprigs of coriander, covered them with water and olive oil, sprinkled some chopped chilli over the top, and put the lot in the oven.

After 10 minutes, I checked them out, and all seemed well. The water was very hot, but not bubbling, and the breasts were well away from cooked through. Then the phone rang. It was my mother. We nattered away for a few minutes and the birds went out of my head, and then she started on a story and I remembered the birds but I couldn’t draw myself to interrupt, and then she finished, and I said goodbye and rushed out, and the love of my life was at the oven door, looking in with hope and doubt in her eyes, and she said ‘I didn’t know what you wanted me to do,’ and I said with hope and doubt in my voice that all would be well, while looking at the pheasants sitting in the hot stock shrivelling up, and she added that she hadn’t cooked the pasta to go with the pheasants, and I swore and blamed her, and she said ‘Well you should have told me,’ and I swore again and blamed my mother, and our friends laughed, and we sat down and ate tough, overcooked pheasant, and got drunk.

Much later, I took pheasant at Stephanie’s, the delicious Melbourne restaurant. It was so tender, so delightful. I asked Stephanie for the trick.

‘You roast it very quickly,’ she said, ‘in a very, very hot oven.’ ‘Quickly’ means about 9 minutes. ‘Then,’ she said, ‘remove the bird, slice the breasts free and keep them in a bainmarie of stock, walnut oil, (and truffle juice) until the gentle heat of the stock has completed the cooking.’

I can vouch for it. It was a ripper.

WINE: Well at least I can recommend something to get drunk with — only kidding! French Burgundy can do things to you, when consumed with pheasant, which rival Mozart or Beethoven on a good day. Unfortunately there is good and bad burgundy, and if you want a good one be prepared to part with seventy-odd dollars or more. The Aussie pinots nearly hit the high notes but just aren’t quite there.